Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Rabbi Elka Abrahamson put her hanukkiah in the window, its nine brass branches visible from the street of her Columbus, Ohio, home as darkness fell. Beside the menorah, a small Israeli flag stuck out of a mug filled with pens.

The reasons to be emotionally torn apart this year were numerous, she thought. Normally, the holiday is about fun for kids, with gifts and dreidel songs. Now there was war. Death of innocent Israelis and Palestinians. Hatred on university campuses. Many people did not seem to know that Jews were even afraid, she thought. There was even conversation about whether or not to light the menorah for all to see.

She remembered a story from the Talmud. Two great rabbis had a dispute about how to light the menorah. One said they should start with eight candles and wind down. But the other said to start with one candle, and every night add one more. His way became tradition. It was a way to show that light must increase, must be added to the world, she said.

“We have to just have that in mind constantly right now,” Rabbi Abrahamson, the president of the Wexner Foundation, a philanthropic group that supports Jewish agencies and programs, said of the lesson on light. “It may feel very faint and small, and just a spark. But we’ve got to determine each of us, how we use our voices, our intellect, our spirit, to grow the light.”

Hanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights, which ends this week, is a minor holiday of the Jewish calendar, but this year the addition of every candle on the menorah holds greater significance. The celebration comes not only in the literal darkness of winter in the northern hemisphere, but also the metaphorical darkness of rising antisemitism, pain and fear that many Jewish families face since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

And while some Jews are afraid of backlash if they light a menorah this year, many others are turning toward tradition. The courage is precisely the point.

Historically, the holiday is a one of hope, commemorating the second century B.C. revolt of the Maccabees, Jewish warriors, against the Greeks, that re-established Jewish worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Spiritually, it celebrates the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days, allowing them to rededicate the Temple.

This year, it is especially important to light menorahs publicly, said Rabbi Jesse Olitsky, 39, of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, N.J., an egalitarian Conservative synagogue of about 450 families. He saw new lessons of Jewish community and identity in the old story.

Younger generations have taken for granted the safety of what it means to be a Jew in America, he said. He wanted his school-aged children to wear their Star of David necklaces proudly, not tuck them under their shirts in fear.

“I have no doubt that the Maccabees were scared,” he said. “The miracle was even in their fear they were proud of who they were.”

This year Rabba Yaffa Epstein, senior scholar at the Jewish Education Project, ordered blue and white candles from Israel for her menorah. In the story of the Maccabees, military victory is not entirely the point, she said. “It is, God did a miracle for us,” she said.

The Talmud tells the story of the oil several hundred years after the actual event, and after Jews have lost the Temple, she noted. Later sages declared it holy, representing the desire to bring more holiness and light even when light has been lost and darkness returns, she explained.

“The story that we tell is one of miracles rather than defeat,” she said. “There is an obligation this year more than ever, to light the lights.”

She found special beauty in the shamash, the ninth “helper” candle, that is used to light the candles each night. It is a tangible reminder that the candles are lit simply to enjoy the beauty of the light, not for their usefulness. “If you need to read, you are not allowed to read by the light of the menorah,” she said. “We don’t want you to use the light of the Hanukkah lights for anything other than their own purpose, remembering the miracle.”

Old practices are given new meaning, strengthened by the hope of the past. A week before Hanukkah started this year, more than 500 people came to a “Bring in the Light” educational event at the Jewish Community Center of Central New Jersey, hundreds more than were initially expected. Families spread out picnic blankets in a gymnasium adorned with Israeli flags, and prayed with local rabbis, eager to come together during this painful season.

Organizers set up an exploration area for young children to explore light itself. The oil of old was represented with modern laser lights — there were light tablets, translucent dreidels and light-up balls, neon sticks and light designs projected on the walls. The idea was to explore light, but also shadow.

“In Judaism, candles and light are also a symbol of learning,” said Rabbi Paul Kerbel from Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, who spoke at the event. “The Hamas attack on Israel reawakened in many Jews the desire to stand up and be proud Jews.”

Candlelight is also fragile, extinguishable by a slight wind, reflected Rabbi Josh Feigelson, host of the Soulful Jewish Living podcast. But it is a fragility that invites care and courage, not fear, he said.

On the final night of Hanukkah, when the candles are all lit, his family goes outside their home near Chicago to look at the scene in the window. Beyond the glass is the glow, beneath the wall of old black-and-white family photographs, loved ones who have lit these same candles year after year.

One was his wife’s father, who was born in the woods of Ukraine in 1942 to parents fighting the Nazis, he said. In the family’s story, the baby cried, giving away their position. His parents had to leave him behind, hoping to return for him. When they did, they found him miraculously alive, surrounded by boot prints.

“Either there was a dose of humanity, or they did not want to waste a bullet,” Rabbi Feigelson recounted. “Had that not happened, and many other things — miracles really — not occurred, she wouldn’t be here, and my children wouldn’t be here.”

“It takes me back to the fragility of the candle,” he said. “The metaphor explains itself.”

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